Military Aviation

Two KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft have set a new endurance mission record of 72 hours demonstrating multi-day tanker mission generation capabilities

The previous record for a KC-135 Stratotanker endurance mission was 40 hours.

Two KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft simultaneously conducted 72-hour single-aircraft endurance missions, demonstrating multi-day tanker mission generation capabilities, Oct. 4-7, 2022.

As told by 2nd Lt. Ariana Wilkinson, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, in the article Fairchild completes historic 72-Hour KC-135 endurance mission, for over 72-hours the aircraft only landed to refuel, change crews, and service engine oil while keeping at least one engine running. This mission was accomplished with crews from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, along with mission partners from the 141st Air Refueling Wing, 452nd Air Mobility Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California, and 134th ARW at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tennessee, continuously operating two participating KC-135s to demonstrate the US fleet’s ability to project global reach.

Missions like these are critical to maximizing the fleet capabilities. Joint force lethality in a theater as large as the Indo-Pacific demands a mobility force prepared to execute its mission over large distances and under extended conditions.

A US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing takes off during a long-duration endurance sortie. By having multi-day tanker mission generation capability KC-135 forces will have increased flexibility to detect and defeat threats to the US 

“Air Mobility Command is the joint force maneuver,” said Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of AMC at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space & Cyber Symposium, Sep. 21, 2022. “We are the meaningful maneuver. There is too much water and too much distance for anyone else to do it relevantly, at pace, at speed, at scale. Everyone’s role is critical, but AMC is the maneuver for the joint force. If we don’t have our act together, nobody wins. Nobody is in position. Nobody is lethal.

“If we can’t get [assets] to where they need to be to do their mission, then we are wasting our time. Rehearse it like it’s going to happen tomorrow and get after it,” Minihan challenged.

The endurance mission covered over 36,000 miles and included total force operational support from numerous units across the country. During the mission, the two KC-135s refueled B-2 Spirits, B-52 Stratofortresses, an E-3 Sentry, and an E-6B Mercury. Flight crews interchanged seamlessly over the three-day mission. Each jet had two flying crew chiefs for support and utilized hot-pit crews at Fairchild AFB, McGhee Tyson ARB and March ARB.

“The execution of this endurance mission is a proof of concept to support Pacific Air Force’s planning efforts and the Air Force’s focus on Persistent Mission Generation,” said Col. Craig Giles, 92nd Maintenance Group commander. “Two aircraft performed a series of engine running crew changes and hot-pit refuels to minimize the amount of time aircraft are on the ground and maximize aircraft reliability by eliminating the need to cycle power, hydraulics, and avionics.”

A US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing takes off during a long-duration endurance sortie.

Maintenance technicians executed concurrent engine oil servicing during one of the engine running crew changes (ERRCs) to ensure oil consumption did not limit the amount of time the engines could remain running. This allowed the crews to demonstrate tanker “drop-in” concept with minimum time spent vulnerable on the ground, a strategy that is crucial to survivability in a high-end contested fight.

During the endurance mission, crews were able to apply multiple key Agile Combat Employment capabilities through hot-pit refueling operations, key servicing, and concurrent servicing, reducing downtime, and increasing our ability to demonstrate unrivaled global reach.

“This was the first continuously operating 72-hour endurance mission for the KC-135,” said Col. Chad Cisewski, 92nd Operations Group commander. “Part of the ACE concept is that aircraft will continue forward while spending minimal time on the ground. This mission is one example of airmen utilizing ACE concepts the way they could be employed in the Pacific. I’m extremely proud of both our Operations and Maintenance team for their tireless work on this.”

Airmen assigned to the 92nd Logistics Readiness Squadron and the 92nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, conduct a hot-pit fueling on a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a 72-hour endurance mission at Fairchild Air Force Base, WA, Oct. 4, 2022. Hot-pit refueling minimizes the amount of time aircraft are on the ground and maximize aircraft reliability by eliminating the need to cycle power, hydraulics, and avionics.

As America’s Super Tanker wing, Team Fairchild continues to set new standards for global reach and the enduring tanker force. The previous record for a KC-135 endurance mission was 40 hours.

The KC-135 Stratotanker provides the core aerial refueling capability for the US Air Force and has excelled in this role for more than 60 years. This unique asset enhances the Air Force’s capability to accomplish its primary mission of global reach. It also provides aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nation aircraft. The KC-135 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations.

On Feb. 24, 2011, Boeing announced that it had received a contract from the US Air Force to build the next-generation aerial refueling tanker aircraft, the KC-46, based on the Boeing 767 commercial airplane, to replace 179 of the service’s 400 KC-135 tankers.

Photo credit: 2nd Lt. Ariana E. Wilkinson / U.S. Air Force

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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